BRUSSELS — Romelu Lukaku was selected in Belgium's 26-man squad for the World Cup on Thursday despite coach Roberto Martinez not expecting to be able to call on the injured striker until after the group stage.
Martinez said Lukaku, Belgium’s record scorer with 68 goals, was “medically unfit” after sustaining a left thigh injury two weeks ago.
Lukaku has played only five games for Inter Milan this season, having previously been sidelined for two months because of a hamstring injury.
After announcing a squad that includes mainstays Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, Martinez insisted he was not giving “special treatment” to Lukaku because of his importance to the team.
“The World Cup has two very different phases,” Martinez said. "One is the group phase, and that is the only phase we can prepare for — the three games that we have.
“But then there is another World Cup, which is the knockout rounds. And medically, we feel that Romelu Lukaku at this point could make that second World Cup.”
Lukaku, who hurt his thigh two games into his comeback from hamstring problems, has been undergoing treatment with Belgium's medical staff and his fitness will be monitored until Nov. 22 — the day before the team's opening game in Group F against Canada.
Regulations state teams can replace players in the squad up to 24 hours before its first game.
Morocco and Croatia are also in the same group as Belgium, the world's No. 2-ranked team.
“Romelu Lukaku is a very important player for the Red Devils,” Martinez said. “Now we are working from a medical point of view to try to bring him on the pitch and, from that point, to give him a big role.”
Martinez pointed to Belgium's previous experience of carrying key players in the squad at major tournaments despite their injuries. In 2018, center back Vincent Kompany was injured ahead of the first game of the World Cup in Russia but returned for the final match of the group stage and played through to the semifinals.
Center midfielder Axel Witsel was selected in the squad for Euro 2020 last year even though he was recovering from a serious Achilles tendon injury. He went on to make a quicker-than-expected return and featured in the group stage.
Because of Lukaku's injury status, Martinez opted to pick a third center forward in Loïs Openda, who has made only four appearances for Belgium. Michy Batshuayi is likely to start as Belgium's striker in Lukaku's absence.
Martinez said his hardest decision was to leave out experienced center back Dedryck Boyata, preferring Wout Faes and Zeno Debast instead.
Goalkeepers: Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Royal Antwerp), Zeno Debast (Anderlecht), Leander Dendoncker (Aston Villa), Wout Faes (Leicester), Arthur Theate (Rennes), Jan Vertonghen (Benfica), Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), Timothy Castagne (Leicester).
Midfielders: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Amadou Onana (Everton), Youri Tielemans (Belgium), Hans Vanaken (Club Brugge), Axel Witsel (Atletico Madrid), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Dortmund).
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Fenerbahce), Charles De Ketelaere (AC Milan), Jérémy Doku (Rennes), Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan), Dries Mertens (Galatasaray), Loïs Openda (Lens), Leandro Trossard (Brighton).
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press